Dependence, Independence and Interdependence in Relationships

couple kissing behind flag.jpg

As the 4th of July gets close, I keep thinking about the interplay of 3 words in relationships: Dependence, Independence, and Interdependence.

Probably because English is not my native tong, whenever I think about words, I tend to go first to the dictionary to get the “official” meaning of the words. Pulling together what different dictionaries and Wikipedia say, and thinking about what the words may mean for couples, this is my take on these words.  


The state of relying on or being controlled by someone or something else. 

In relationships a very dependent person avoids making decisions, always defers to the other, even when it might be personally harmful, and feels that their emotions depend entirely on what happens with the other person.

Emotional dependency means getting one’s good feelings from outside oneself. It means needing to get filled from outside rather than from within.  There are numerous forms of emotional dependency:

  • Dependence on substances, such as food, drugs, or alcohol, to fill emptiness and take away pain.
  • Dependency on processes such as spending, gambling, or TV, also to fill emptiness and take away pain.
  • Dependence on money to define one’s worth and adequacy.
  • Dependence on getting someone’s love, approval, or attention to feel worthy, adequate, lovable, and safe.
  • Dependence on sex to fill emptiness and feel adequate.

When you do not take responsibility for defining your own adequacy and worth or for creating your own inner sense of safety, you will seek to feel adequate, worthy and safe externally. Whatever you do not give to yourself, you may seek from others or from substances or processes. Emotional dependency is the opposite of taking personal responsibility for one’s emotional wellbeing.


Not dependent; free; not subject to control by others; not relying on others; not subordinate; as, few men are wholly independent.

The independent person takes personal responsibility for their actions and emotions. What does it mean to take emotional responsibility rather than be emotionally dependent?

Primarily, it means recognizing that our feelings come from our own thoughts, beliefs and behavior, rather than from others or from circumstances. Once you understand and accept that you create your own feelings, rather than your feelings coming from outside yourself, then you can begin to take emotional responsibility.

For example, let’s say someone you care about gets angry at you.

If you are emotionally dependent, you may feel rejected and believe that your feelings of rejection are coming from the other’s anger. You might also feel hurt, scared, anxious, inadequate, shamed, angry, blaming, or many other difficult feeling in response to the other’s anger. You might try many ways of getting the other person to not be angry in an effort to feel better.

However, if you are emotionally responsible, you will feel and respond entirely differently. The first thing you might do is to tell yourself that another person’s anger has nothing to do with you. Perhaps that person is having a bad day and is taking it out on you. Perhaps that person is feeling hurt or inadequate and is trying to be one-up by putting you one-down. Whatever the reason for the other’s anger, it is about them rather than about you. An emotionally responsible person does not take others’ behavior personally, knowing that we have no control over others’ feelings and behavior, and that we do not cause others to feel and behave the way they do - that others are responsible for their feelings and behavior just as you are for yours.

The next thing an emotionally responsible person might do is move into compassion for the angry person, and open to learning about what is going on with the other person. For example, you might say, “I don’t like your anger, but I am willing to understand what is upsetting you. Would you like to talk about it?” If the person refuses to stop being angry, or if you know ahead of time that this person is not going to open up, then as an emotionally responsible person, you would take loving action in your own behalf. 

For example, you might say, “I’m unwilling to be at the other end of your anger. When you are ready to be open with me, let me know. Meanwhile, I’m going to take a walk (or hang up the phone, or leave the restaurant, or go into the other room, and so on). An emotionally responsible person gets out of range of attack rather than tries to change the other person.

Once out of range, the emotionally responsible person goes inside and explores any painful feelings that might have resulted from the attack. For example, perhaps you are feeling lonely as a result of being attacked. An emotionally responsible person embraces the feelings of loneliness with understanding and compassion, holding them just as you would hold a sad child. When you acknowledge and embrace the feelings of loneliness, you allow them to move through you quickly, so you can move back into peace.

Rather than being a victim of the other’s behavior, you have taken emotional responsibility for yourself. Instead of staying stuck in feeling angry, hurt, blaming, afraid, anxious or inadequate, you have moved yourself back into feeling safe and peaceful.

When you realize that your feelings are your responsibility, you can move out of emotional dependency. This will make a huge difference within you and with all of your relationships. Relationships thrive when each person moves out of emotional dependency and into emotional responsibility.


Mutually dependent; depending on each other.

Interdependence is a dynamic of being mutually and physically responsible to and sharing a common set of principles with others. This concept differs distinctly from "dependence" in that an interdependent relationship implies that participants are emotionally, economically, ecologically and or morally "interdependent." 

Some people advocate freedom or independence as a sort of ultimate good; others do the same with devotion to one's family, community, or society. Interdependence recognizes the truth in each position and weaves them together. Two people that cooperate with each other are said to be interdependent. It can also be defined as the interconnectedness and the reliance on one another socially, economically, emotionally and environmentally.

Independent thinking alone is not suited to interdependent reality in relationships. Independent people who do not have the maturity to think and act interdependently may be good individuals, but they won't be good partners. They're not coming from the paradigm of interdependence necessary to succeed in marriage and family.  

While independence is a very difficult and important developmental stage in human development — a dramatic step up from dependence, as anyone who has teens and two-year-olds will tell you— it is not the ultimate goal of maturity.

As we mature, life encourages us to bring the healthy individuality (which we developed through our independence) into relationships and networks which involve a lot of healthy interdependence. People use words like mutuality, community and synergy to describe this good kind of interdependence.

Nature is a great model of interdependence. Today you, like me, are breathing hundreds of gallons of invisible oxygen, a gift from our plant kin, to whom we return hundreds of gallons of that stuffy carbon dioxide that they love so much (thank heavens for diversity!). Meanwhile the flowers are gifting nectar to the bees, who return the favor by pollinating the flowers.

And we have to face it: While rabbits are staving off foxly hunger, the foxes are keeping the rabbits from overgrazing their bioregion so that their species can continue to thrive. It all fits, one way or another, in dense webs of interdependence.

But interdependence is social, as well. Couples need to find a healthy balance between being an independent healthy “I” — that can self-regulate and take personal responsibility — and a collaborative “We” — which can get household tasks done, childrearing demands met, and share the ups and downs of life. 

Nurturing Healthy Interdependence

Interdependence needs dialogues where the couple learns from each other, weaving your lives, stories and hearts together and discovering new understandings and possibilities you could never have found alone. You can experience a near-magical interdependence through good dialogue in your relationships, in your groups and organizations, and in your neighborhoods and communities.  

To nurture interdependence you need to practice putting yourself in the other’s shoes, to learn and encourage in yourself empathy and compassion. You need to leave your ego out the door of your home and think of what is good for all in the family.

In a way, Interdependence is the balance between Dependence and Independence. We need a healthy dose or them too, but not in their extreme forms. Interdependence mediates this and helps couples become a “we” without losing their individuality. 

So if I were to write a “Declaration of Interdependence” for couples, it would go something like this:

We hold this truth to be self-evident:

We are Both.

In This.



Therefore we live this truth

in our lives, homes and communities,

and thrive together into a future

that we create together.


We are the intimacy

that is awakening

to both the fact and the opportunity

of our interdependence —

fully, finally and beyond a shadow of doubt.


We are the words

which are making

ourselves into a special relationship

that works for us as a couple and for our family.


Because we know the Greatest Secret

of all:

"We are Both

in this


Happy 4th of July!